Sometimes the path you’re on may be leading you in the wrong direction. This was the realization for Vaughn graduate Antonio Florio ’19 when, at the age of 25, he switched gears from a career in economics and decided to pursue his passion for aviation and become an air traffic controller. Now, at 29, he’s training for his future at New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZNY) on Long Island. Read on to learn how a conversation with his uncle sparked his ambition to go back to college and follow his lifelong dream of being an eye in the sky.

Keeping an eye on the sky

Growing up in Rockland County, New York, Florio always had his eyes on the sky. He remembers how going to the airport was one of his favorite things to do as a child. “From as far back as I can remember, I would always have my head out of the car window, looking up at the planes as we drove to the airport—or anywhere for that matter,” Florio said laughingly. “Airplanes always fascinated me.”

Finding his way

After graduating from high school, Florio attended the State University of New York at Oneonta, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in economics in 2015. For the next three years, he worked in this field but eventually realized the economics industry was not for him. “I was bored at my job,” he said. “I wasn’t happy going to work every day. I knew I had to make a change.” Then, one day he had a conversation with his uncle, who happened to be a pilot. “My uncle saw how unhappy I was at my job and suggested I pursue a career in aviation like him,” Florio explained. “I knew I didn’t want to be a pilot, but my uncle suggested becoming an air traffic controller. The rest is history.” Florio left his job and took some time off to travel and contemplate his next move. Knowing he had his sights set on becoming an air traffic controller, the next decision was where to earn his degree.

Choosing Vaughn

Being a native New Yorker, Florio was familiar with Vaughn College and knew that was where he was destined to turn his passion into a career. As one of only 30 colleges in the country to offer the Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI), Florio was certain that Vaughn would be the best place to prepare him for a career as an air traffic controller.

“I attended a campus tour and was instantly excited about attending the College,” Florio explained.  “Once I saw the control tower on campus, I was hooked!” In September 2018, he enrolled in Vaughn’s Airport Management degree program. Since Florio already had one bachelor’s degree under his belt, he was able to complete the program in one year and he graduated with his second bachelor’s degree in May 2019. “The instructors at Vaughn were instrumental in my aspirations to become an air traffic controller,” Florio said. “Their firsthand industry knowledge and sincere interest in my success was paramount during my time there.”

Applying for training

After graduating from Vaughn, Florio went through the rigorous process of applying for the air traffic controller program. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), applicants must meet minimum requirements before being selected to attend the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. Florio said the process—which he describes as “intense”—took about four months to complete. In April 2020, he received notice that he’d met all the requirements and passed all the mandatory testing and evaluations. “I believe having the AT-CTI certification gave me a strong foundation of knowledge to be successful at the FAA academy,” he said. “The pool of applicants was considerable.” Florio was now one step closer to his dream. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This was a major setback for Florio, but he didn’t let it hold him back. He took a job at Westchester County Airport, where he worked in the operations department to fill the time while waiting to begin his training. “Working at the airport was a great learning experience,” he said. “I gained valuable knowledge outside of the classroom that was instrumental in my career.”

Back on track

In November 2021, Florio began his training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, where he remained for four months. “Training at the academy was an amazing experience,” he said. “The competition was steep, but it makes you want to work harder.” Of the eight candidates in his class, Florio was one of the four who passed the FAA training. With this milestone behind him, he was given a list of available positions across the country. “I was chosen to work in En Route Operations, which are facilities that own and operate airspace around 18,000 -to-60,000 feet,” he explained. Florio accepted the position at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZNY) on Long Island located in Ronkonkoma, where he has been training for the past three months. “New York is home for me,” he said. “My fiancé and our families live here as well. I feel like I hit the lottery with this job.”

Florio explained how there is a backlog of trainees at the facility due to the COVID-19 lockdown. “I’m hoping to complete my training and become a certified professional controller within the next few years.” In the meantime, he is training on material that is specific to New York: The study of maps of the airspace in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, the airports in that airspace and military rules, among other topics.

When asked about his decision to switch careers, Florio replied: “Don’t be afraid to make a move in a different direction. You never know how it will turn out until you try, so never settle to play it safe. You have to be happy going to a job every day. It’s never too late to make that happen.”

In-demand career

The ongoing shortage of aviation employees—which include pilots, crew members and air traffic controllers—continues to cripple the industry. If you’re looking for a high-paying career with great benefits and a flexible schedule, becoming an air traffic controller may be the perfect job for you. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median salary for air traffic controllers in 2021 was $129,750. Were you also aware that the mandatory retirement age for air traffic controllers is 56 at which point they receive a pension (50% of average pay) after working for 20 years? For this reason, aviation enthusiasts who are interested in this field are encouraged to begin the process early.

Check out our blog, “Soaring Careers: Top Five Jobs and Salaries for Aviation Degrees,” to learn more about which futureproof career may be best for you.

Do you have your sights on becoming an air traffic controller? Vaughn can get you there—and in less time than you think. Apply today!


Since George Tavares ’15 was a young boy, he had an interest in aviation. His father worked at LaGuardia Airport for many years and brought home lots of entertaining aviation-related items like toy planes that continued to fuel his interest. He was not quite sure what his father’s job was at first, but even years later when he learned his father was a chef at an airport restaurant, not a pilot, his intrigue with aerospace never wavered.

Tavares didn’t know that at the time, but his aviation maintenance training would land him in a different, but related field: a utility company. His current position as an electrical, mechanical, construction, and maintenance manager at Power Generation, allows him to continue his passion for working on turbine engines and training others with his knowledge.

His aviation journey began when he set his sights on becoming a pilot, but the cost to pay for the fuel proved too expensive for himself and his family, so he needed to change direction. His parents came to the United States from the Dominican Republic and did not have a lot of extra income while raising six children. Tavares and his five sisters, all first-generation Americans, were the first to attend college in the family.

When Tavares was very young the family lived in Washington Heights and then moved to Corona, Queens. At that time, this was a rough neighborhood and there was a lot of criminal activity taking place. Tavares remained on the straight and narrow due to his family’s religious nature and stability that helped keep him grounded while setting his sights on achieving his goals. He had a friend who attended Aviation High School and then Vaughn College—known as the College of Aeronautics at the time. Tavares applied to the Air Force with the hope of flying, but when he was not accepted he decided to follow in his friend’s footsteps and attend Vaughn.

Tavares enrolled in 2012 at the Aviation Training Institute. “I loved the College. It had small classes and I fell in love with what I was learning,” he said. While working towards his airframe and powerplant (A&P) certificates, he secured a part-time internship at a job fair held at the College and that led to an offer of a full-time position at Lucas Aerospace. “I jumped at the chance, and didn’t wait to finish the A&P program because I thought I had all the classes I needed to succeed.”

Unfortunately, the aviation field suffered a downturn after 9/11. Though Tavares wanted to stay with aviation, a friend told him to look at positions at Con Edison. While not widely known, power generation and utility companies have gas and steam turbine engines that are utilized for restoring power quickly, and regularly hire graduates with A&P certification. Tavares went on an interview where he was slated for a position, but a hiring freeze was in place. Fortunately for Tavares, KeySpan took over the company, interviewed him, and he was hired to work at the Ravenswood Generating Station in Queens.

Tavares soon learned that in order to move up the ranks he needed to finish his degree. He was offered various positions that included construction, maintenance, electrical and mechanical supervisor—but all required a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Tavares returned to Vaughn and finished his associate in occupational studies and A&P certification in 2015 and began working on a bachelor’s degree in airport management in 2016.

After working for several years at Ravenswood, Tavares was offered a management position at Eastern Generation in Astoria, where he’s been working for the last 10 years.

Tavares is married with four children—two girls and two boys—and his career choice has allowed him to provide for his family and buy two homes. “I’m grateful to Vaughn for helping me through out my journey,” said Tavares.  “I owe my success to the College. It’s a great place to study.”